Why You Make Less Emotional Decisions in a Foreign Language

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We like to think that our ethics and morals are characteristics unique to us as individuals; that we as individuals tend to believe in the more Kantian, Utilitarian or the rational, and that these beliefs are ingrained in our personality.

But researchers have discovered that this may not be the case. In fact, our moral decision making can be altered by something so small as having to make the decision in a foreign language.

Led by psychologist Boaz Keysar of the University of Chicago, scientists found that people are more likely to make a utilitarian decision, meaning one with a better outcome for more people, when they make the decision in a foreign language.


Keysar and his team conducted their research using the “trolley problem,” which is an ethical dilemma where there is a trolley heading down train tracks and will kill five people. The dilemma asks, would it be better to divert the trolley to another track, where it would only kill one person?

The study, published April 23 in Public Library of Science ONE, found:

“Across all populations more participants selected the utilitarian choice, to save five by killing one, when using the foreign language than their native tongue.”

The study analyzed 317 male and female students, people who spoke English as a first language and Spanish, Korean, French or Hebrew as a second language. Twenty percent of the participants made the utilitarian decision when they read the dilemma in their native tongue, but 33 percent when they read it in a second language.

You might be asking, “So what? Why does that matter?” Well, there are lots of people who make really important decisions in a foreign language. Some of them happen at the United Nations, others happen in your office. To think that people might be making decisions differently in a foreign language is, in fact, a big deal.


“These results are important for models of moral decision making because they show that identical dilemmas may elicit different moral judgements depending on a seemingly irrelevant aspect such as the native-ness of the language. Most likely, a foreign language reduces emotional reactivity, promoting cost-benefit considerations, leading to an increase in utilitarian judgments”

H/T Wired

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